Interesting discussion today (for other purposes than what I usually write about here) about comprehension versus analysis. This applies (as discussed today) mostly to children in various developmental stages -- roughly kindergarten through middle school. But it also applies, I think, to us.
The way it applies, though, is somewhat counter-intuitive. When teaching children, it is usually assumed in most forms of education that analysis follows comprehension. Comprehension can loosely be described as being able to piece together given strands of information into a coherent narrative or larger idea. Analysis is in the disassembling -- re-examining those pieces for context, subtext, non-obvious meaning, etc.
We performed an interesting experiment in a higher-level issue that arises when comprehension is taken for granted, though. We listened to side one of an old children's record telling the origin story of the Lone Ranger (available here at Week 26). Afterwards, we discussed various techniques for analyzing the record, gauging it to be generally familiar (genre, characters, tropes) but unfamiliar in other ways (we weren't used to following a radio play). But something interesting happened. We were all so busy analyzing -- discussing Western expansion and ethnocentrism and stereotyping and historical aesthetic context and genre conventions -- that none of us could recall what had actually happened.
Well, I did, anyway, because I actually thought it was pretty neat, and it reminded me of listening to old radio shows with my dad on tape in the car. So I gave the synopsis -- it's the origin of the Lone Ranger, describing how he was separated from the other Texas Rangers after an ambush from the Cavendish gang -- and we relistened. My colleagues' faces lit up...oh! (During discussion, one person thought that my piecing together of the narrative was from prior knowledge of the Lone Ranger. "But they actually said that!") We had a nice discussion about what you might call inverse media literacy, which is itself a kind of media illiteracy -- privileging analysis to the detriment of comprehending the piece itself.
This pretty well articulated for me something I've been kicking around in my brain for quite a while, something I've wanted to call "second-level media illiteracy." Roughly, media literacy is the ability to ask critical questions of media (not in the sense of "criticize," but in the sense of understanding what the various messages of media are, who made it and why, whom the piece is directed to, etc.). We can assume that anyone with eyes can receive an image, but not anyone with eyes can necessarily understand what is being said in the message or how it's being said (conventions, techniques, etc.). Again, this doesn't necessarily extend just to hot-button academic issues -- ethnocentrism, chauvinism, etc. -- but basic issues that blur the line between comprehension and analysis.
Anyway, in what I've been calling second-level media illiteracy, what happens is that you're so busy reading for subtext that you start to miss the text. This is exactly what happened to us listening to the Lone Ranger -- we were obsessed with validating the system of strangeness or wrongness in which the piece was framed, but we couldn't tell you what happened. Our analysis actually destroyed our ability to comprehend the text at the most basic level. And apparently there is some literature that backs this up -- one danger of heavily analytic critical media literacy is that it actively diminishes other kinds of comprehension skills. Following a plot, understanding which character is which, etc. (Can't and won't point to a specific study for this, since I'm just floating ideas here -- let's just say this is anecdotal and base it on my own experience today.)
In many ways, savvy is the enemy of comprehension. One who understands how to access information can't necessarily handle the information themselves -- the recent gushing over the role of Twitter in the Iranian protests is a good example. I would imagine that most Western onlookers have very poor comprehension of Iranian politics -- who the major players are, why they matter, who the factions are, who Iranians are -- and so giving this person an endless stream of firsthand analysis is in many ways counter-productive. Certainly comprehension and analysis can work hand-in-hand, but I don't think this is what happened with the Iranian conflict; though it would be totally unfair to say that those who followed the insta-analysis of Twitter feeds etc. learned nothing about Iran, it's also likely that these people did not truly invest themselves in the complicated history of Iranian politics, trying to piece together political movements from at least the time of the shah. (My only firsthand experience with this kind of comprehension-building was portraying Iran on a Model UN team -- a good way to learn Iranian history, but I won't pretend it makes me even marginally competent enough to have a strong opinion on what exactly is happening there.)
The internet is full of analysis, and it's full of content, but it's not all that well equipped to provide comprehension tools. These would necessarily be instructive in nature, and are extremely difficult to achieve in isolation. Conversations are a good way to build comprehension (and a lot of my music history, for instance, has been shaped by the conversations I've had online), but often conversations are venues primarily for analysis -- you already need to know the material before you join in.
But when everyone is essentially analyzing, it's entirely possible that they are simultaneously weakening their comprehension skills. And the tenor of many internet debates in which I've been a part resemble something like this -- lots of smart people who for one reason or another refuse to truly try to understand what another person is arguing, sticking to their own primary evidence and merely attacking from different rhetorical stances. Pausing, relistening, and recalibrating an original response is not really in the vocabulary of Accepted Internet Argument Techniques. It's as true for someone dismissing Fleet Foxes for being self-evidently mediocre (and hey, I suspect Fleet Foxes are pretty mediocre, but I don't want to do the necessary comprehension building, i.e. listening to them again, to figure out why, so I should be pretty honest about that and not fling poo) as it is for someone dismissing Ashlee Simpson's "La La" for objectifying women without noticing the actual (specific) narrative that's happening in the song (she clarifies what the song's really about in the bridge -- "I feel safe with you / I can be myself tonight / It's alright with you / 'Cuz you hold my secrets tight").
So I'm beginning to wonder if my Big Concern about internet communication has been backwards the whole time -- here I am thinking that the problem is that we're not getting very good analysis, when in fact it's possibly the sheer volume of analysis that's hampering a more basic form of comprehension, of everything from policy (cf. the absurdly overwrought reaction to a justice department memo on the Defense of Marriage Act that claims "Obama" is "comparing gay marriage to incest") to music criticism*. When you de-privilege basic comprehension in favor of snap analysis, you'll inevitability degrade the analysis itself, just as our Lone Ranger conversation was essentially meaningless if we couldn't accurately recall what we had actually listened to. In effect, we had a very thoughtfully- and passionately-argued conversation about nothing. And this starts to get at my fears about the further dispersion of online chatter -- lots of (occasionally very good) analysis, but fewer centralized places in which someone might actually be challenged to listen more than once to make sure they got it right the first time.
*The Singles Jukebox is in many ways an experiment in how comprehension and analysis can go completely out of whack in a productive way, i.e. when the comment threads find a middle ground by taking in a variety of perspectives, some of which have a better idea of what's "really happening" in a given song. I think a lot of people, myself included, were a bit off on what Regina Spektor was doing in "Laughing With," but the conversation was revelatory. I note that the most recent comment has some eloquent, thoughtful analysis that once again doesn't seem to totally connect back to what the Spektor is literally saying, but there's at the very least a process to negotiate his interpretation within a group understanding of what's going on when content itself is up for debate along with a particular line of analysis.